"Flags of Our Fathers": Icons come to life as real men burdened by history

It takes Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" awhile to find its way; the veteran filmmaker, it turns out, needed time to turn a big story into an intimate one. But once this World War II drama finds its footing — and much of the film goes by before it does — it's extremely moving. At the end, a flag dances quietly in a whispering breeze, celebrating the film's real-life heroes as eloquently as any words.

"Flags" tells the story of the three survivors of the famous photograph "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," taken on Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945. In the photo, five Marines and one Navy Corpsman, their faces obscured, struggle to raise an American flag. It immediately became an image of the war, but one without context. "Everyone who saw that picture," says someone in the film, "thought it meant victory."

James Bradley published the book "Flags of Our Fathers" in 2000, as a tribute to his father John (the Navy man in the photograph) and all the men of his generation who never talked about their experiences in the war. It traced the fates of the six men in the photograph, three of whom never came home. For the trio who did, the photo came to haunt them. They became famous for a while, then faded into obscurity.

"Flags," with its vast battle scenes, is a change of pace for Eastwood, following two small-scale, character-based gems ("Million Dollar Baby," "Mystic River"). He seems to struggle with the first third of the movie. William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis' screenplay doesn't make the characters distinctive, and Eastwood can't find a way for the actors to emerge from the blur of uniforms. The blue-tinged battle scenes early in the film, shot by Eastwood regular Tom Stern, are impressive (a head is blown off, in perfect CGI) but feel remote; and we don't yet know the characters well enough to be invested in their fates.

But eventually the story gets smaller and more focused, and the performances begin to take shape. Bradley (Ryan Philippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) are wined and dined around the country, to raise funds for war bonds. The experience is often surreal: flag-raising re-creations in a football stadium; replicas of the photo carved from vanilla ice cream, drenched in blood-red strawberry sauce.

But they struggle with the idea that what they did was of any more importance than their forgotten comrades. "I can't take them calling me a hero. All I did was try not to get shot," says Hayes, a Native American who stoically tolerates tomahawk jokes and turns to drink to dull the pain.

Eastwood has become a marvelous director of actors, and he coaxes fine work out of the trio; particularly Philippe, who has a quiet maturity here that he's rarely shown before. Bradford, playing a very young man trying to seize an unexpected brass ring, is touchingly eager, and Beach (who has the movie's most emotional scenes) lets us see the sad weight his character carries.

"Maybe there was no such thing as heroes. Maybe there were just real people like my dad," says a voice-over (representing James Bradley) late in the film. As we watch the soldiers splashing on a beach in a happy flashback, the message resonates. It's sentimental, but in an old-school way that works — the sentiment is earned. "Flags of Our Fathers" finally finds its voice, and sings proudly.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Flags of Our Fathers," with Ryan Philippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Paul Walker, Jamie Bell. Directed by Clint Eastwood, from a screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley with Ron Powers. 132 minutes. Rated R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language. Several theaters.

In this Sunday's Entertainment & the Arts: Freelancer Jeff Shannon goes on the set of "Flags of Our Fathers" and meets director Eastwood; an interview with Beach will be on www.seattletimes.com/